Singing in the rain? Baffert eyes history, wet Derby on tap

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert times three. In a Kentucky Derby lacking a dominant favorite, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer saddles the top three choices.

On what could be a wet day at Churchill Downs, Game Winner is the pre-race favorite, albeit a tepid one at 9-2. Improbable and Roadster were installed as the co-second choices at 5-1.

“Last year we came in here with Justify and we knew it was my race to lose,” Baffert said.

The 19-horse field for the 145th Derby on Saturday reflects the prep season leading to the opening leg of the Triple Crown: no one horse commanded the attention.

“There are a lot of good horses in here,” Baffert said. “They’re a pretty evenly matched group.”

The picture got scrambled again when initial favorite Omaha Beach was scratched because of a breathing problem, dealing a devastating blow to 68-year-old trainer Richard Mandella, whose Hall of Fame resume lacks only a Derby victory.

That prompted the early odds to be redone. The race also lost 30-1 shot Haikal after the colt was scratched with an infected left front foot.

“This is a crazy game and anything can happen,” said Bret Calhoun, who trains By My Standards. “We just have to hold our breaths until we get there.”

War of Will benefited slightly from Haikal’s scratch. He won’t have to start in the No. 1 post, which will be left vacant. The field will break from posts 2 through 20.

A win by any of Baffert’s trio would tie him with Ben Jones for the most Derby victories with six. He would become the first trainer to win the race in consecutive years twice. His last back-to-back winners were in 1997 and `98.

Baffert won last year’s Derby – the rainiest on record – with Justify. Saturday’s forecast calls for a 90 percent chance of rain and a high of 66 degrees (18 Celsius).

It sure looks like anybody’s soggy race this time.

“It’s whoever gets the trip,” Baffert said of the 1 \-mile journey. “Especially now that it’s going to rain, we don’t know what is going to happen. It’s too bad the weather is not going to work with us.”

Game Winner finished second to Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. Roadster’s only loss in four career starts was to Game Winner. Improbable went 3-0 last year, including a win on the Churchill Downs dirt, and finished second in this year’s Arkansas Derby.

A victory by any of the four California-based horses would surely boost the struggling industry in the state, where a spate of 23 horse deaths over three months at Santa Anita triggered a raft of medication and safety rules changes that are affecting the rest of the sport.

Every horse in the Derby, except Japan-bred Master Fencer, will run on Lasix, the anti-bleeding medication allowed on race day in the U.S. Churchill Downs and the other Triple Crown tracks announced recently the drug will be banned starting in 2021.

Game Winner’s breeding suggests a sloppy track would appeal to him, although he’s never raced on one. Neither has Code of Honor, Roadster, Tax and Vekoma.

Horses that are 1-for-1 on off-tracks are: Master Fencer, Maximum Security, Spinoff, Tacitus and War of Will.

Those with one or two losses on such tracks are: Bodexpress, By My Standards, Country House, Cutting Humor, Gray Magician, Improbable, Long Range Toddy, Plus Que Parfait and Win Win Win.

Baffert touted undefeated Florida Derby winner Maximum Security as the horse that should be the favorite.

“He’s a horse that nobody is talking about and that’s a horse that I’m worried about,” he said. “He’s run faster than we have.”

Gary and Mary West have two shots to win their first Derby since they own both Game Winner and Maximum Security.

The other trainers besides Baffert with multiple starters are Bill Mott and Todd Pletcher.

Mott, the second winningest trainer all-time at Churchill Downs, saddles Tacitus and Country House in pursuit of his first Derby win in a Hall of Fame career.

Pletcher has gone under the radar with a couple of 30-1 shots: Cutting Humor and Spinoff.

Master Fencer is one of two 50-1 shots and the first Japan-bred horse to run in the Derby. He’s never run in a Grade 1 race and got in when three other horses ahead of him on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard weren’t nominated to the Triple Crown.

Keep an eye on Cutting Humor, if for no other reason than the 30-1 shot’s new rider is Mike Smith. The Hall of Famer picked up the mount Friday after his original Derby horse, Omaha Beach, was scratched. Smith won his first Derby aboard 50-1 shot Giacomo in 2005. He and Justify began their Triple Crown sweep last year with a win in the Derby.

Post time is 6:50 p.m. EDT.

Irad Ortiz sets single-season record with 77th stakes win

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NEW YORK – Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. earned his record 77th single-season North American stakes victory when he guided Dr B to victory in the $200,000 Go for Wand at Aqueduct.

The 30-year-old native of Puerto Rico broke the old mark of 76 set by the late Hall of Fame rider Garrett Gomez in 2007.

“This is great. Amazing feeling,” said Ortiz, Jr., who won the Eclipse Award as outstanding jockey from 2018-20. “Gomez did it in 2007 and he was a great rider, one of the best in the game. I’m so happy just to be a part of this. I love this sport.”

Ortiz Jr. won the Belmont Stakes with Mo Donegal in June to go with Breeders’ Cup victories in the Juvenile, Filly & Mare Sprint and Sprint. He also earned nine other Grade 1 wins in New York, including Life Is Good in the Woodward and Whitney and Nest in the Alabama and Coaching Club Oaks. He won riding titles at Belmont’s spring-summer meet and Saratoga’s summer meet.

Ortiz Jr. leads North American riders with 304 overall victories this year. His purse earnings totaled over $35.8 million going into Saturday’s races, which already surpassed his single-season record of $34.1 million in 2019.

Appeals court strikes down federal horseracing rules act

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NEW ORLEANS — Congress unconstitutionally gave too much power to a nonprofit authority it created in 2020 to develop and enforce horseracing rules, a federal appeals court in New Orleans ruled Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, or HISA, is “facially unconstitutional.”

The authority created by the act was meant to bring uniform policies and enforcement to horseracing amid doping scandals and racetrack horse deaths. But the 5th Circuit – in two rulings issued Friday – ruled in favor of opponents of the act in lawsuits brought by horseracing associations and state officials in Texas, Louisiana and West Virginia.

The Federal Trade Commission has the ultimate authority to approve or reject HISA regulations, but it can’t modify them. And the authority can reject proposed modifications.

Three 5th Circuit judges agreed with opponents of the act – including the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and similar groups in multiple states – that the setup gave too much power to the nongovernmental authority and too little to the FTC.

“A cardinal constitutional principle is that federal power can be wielded only by the federal government. Private entities may do so only if they are subordinate to an agency,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel that ruled in the Texas case.

The same panel, which also included judges Carolyn Dineen King and Kurt Engelhardt, cited the Texas ruling in a separate order in favor of horseracing interests and regulators challenging HISA in a different case.

The chair of the horseracing authority’s board of directors said it would ask for further court review. Friday’s ruling could be appealed to the full 5th Circuit court of the Supreme Court.

“If today’s ruling were to stand, it would not go into effect until January 10, 2023 at the earliest,” Charles Scheeler said in an email. “We are focused on continuing our critical work to protect the safety and integrity of Thoroughbred racing, including the launch of HISA’s Anti-Doping and Medication Control Program on January 1, 2023.”

The ruling was criticized by Marty Irby, executive director of the Animal Wellness Action organization. “Over the course of three Congresses, the most brilliant legal minds on Capitol Hill addressed the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act’s constitutionality and ultimately decided that the Federal Trade Commission’s limited oversight was sufficient,” Irby said in an email.

Among the subjects covered by the authority’s rules and enforcement were jockey safety (including a national concussion protocol), the riding crop and how often riders can use it during a race, racetrack accreditation, and the reporting of training and veterinary records.

Animal rights groups, who supported the law, pointed to scandals in the industry involving medication and the treatment of horses.

Duncan wrote that in declaring HISA unconstitutional, “we do not question Congress’s judgment about problems in the horseracing industry. That political call falls outside our lane.”

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, hailed the ruling on Twitter, calling HISA a “federal takeover of Louisiana horse racing.”